Master cake artist has multilayered passion for baking
Flora Aghababyan is having a love affair with chocolate. She’s caressing it, molding it, allowing it to slip in and out of her fingers.
“I’m lucky I have cold hands,” she muses as she wraps a sheet of glistening frosting around a five-tier sugar-and-flour masterpiece. “The temperature has to be just right or the chocolate will melt and I’ll have to start again,” she says, constantly smoothing, smoothing, smoothing until the cake in front of her looks like a work of art.
It’s not a life of pie for the Wynn’s master cake artist who has been spinning sugar for the past 11 years.
Her work has been praised by Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez and featured on the Food Network and in YouTube videos.
Aghababyan’s job is giving others something they crave. “Everybody loves cake. To me, a cake is a thing that will make people happy. They see a cake and it brings a smile to their faces.”
Aghababyan’s clients include A-list stars, sports icons and regular tourists who want their sugar fix, 2018 style. Forget that thick frosting you could use to caulk a tub.
“Most people ask for a simple cake with some chocolate on it. We will add a few dots or fruits or flowers or macaroons to make it look beautiful and taste very yummy. I think these simple cakes remind people of the childhood cakes made by their mothers.”
At the Wynn, she creates a signature cake that looks like an expensive gift box. It’s one of their most requested pastry items. “We dress it with different colors or bows,” she said. “We also do mini-cakes for just one person perhaps in the shape of a purse or a man’s tie or bow.”
Weddings are a perennial request, and while brides used to request more elaborate fondant-heavy designs, the modern approach is simpler and more elegant.“Of course, everyone has their favorite dream cake for a wedding. We’ve made cakes with 16 tiers covered in fresh florals,” she said. “With the biggest cakes, I deliver them myself with my assistants. We’ll take the cake, put it on a room service table and put it on the table. You can’t risk any accidents.”
Growing up in Armenia, Aghababyan said she was “an artistic child. Singing, dancing and modeling came natural.”
At 12, she found a new way to express herself … in the kitchen. Aghababyan began pouring sugar and flour into a bowl. “Whatever I had in my house that would make a cake, I mix together,” she said. “I started doing it by myself after watching my mother. More than anything, I wanted to make my own recipe because cooking is one of our most creative arts. I didn’t like to copy. It had to be my own.
“I began by making regular old sponge cakes. I’d make a chocolate glaze and put it on top of the cake. It was as simple as it was delicious,” she said.
Aghababyan studied the art of making pastries in Russian and Armenian bakeries before moving to Los Angeles to design cakes at Chalet Pastry in Hollywood. In 2002, she moved to Vegas where she spent five years as head cake decorator at the Bellagio before moving to the Wynn’s kitchens.
Aghababyan is now a Vegas legend whose career is sprinkled with accolades, including winning a World Grand Prize in the Grand National Wedding Cake Competition in 2010. She was nominated for top 10 cake artists in North America in 2012 by Dessert Professional magazine.
Aghababyan said her favorite cakes now feature fresh flowers or are hand-painted by her and her team.
“I love special orders. It doesn’t matter what kind of shape, design or color you want, we can do it,” she said. “One time, we did a cake for a surgeon in the shape of a human body laying down. Another cake featured a good sized jumping horse — and that cake had to travel from the Wynn to Los Angeles on a plane.”
“I’ve done cakes for hockey, football and all kinds of sports,” she said. She’s even made cakes to commemorate divorces.
Her most expensive cake? “There was a cake that cost about $14,000. It was for a wedding and the cake was covered in real Swarovski crystals. Usually I don’t put anything not edible on the cake,” she said. “But before the couple cut the cake, we removed the crystals, which were just there for the look.”
Has the new sugar-free generation hurt those who bake cakes? “We do vegan and gluten-free cakes, which are very good. We make them in five or six flavors with specialty fillings,” she said.
“Of course, you can’t have cake every day,” she said of our carb-conscious city. “But it’s always good to have an occasional piece of cake.”
Speaking of which, Aghababyan does have a slice for dessert now and then. That’s despite the fact that she’s tasting cake all day long. “I have to taste everything from the cake to the cream and the fruit. I want to know if everything we’re doing is right. It’s just part of the job.”
When she’s not baking, Aghababyan likes to relax at home with her mother who lives with her. She also has a grown daughter who lives in California and a son who lives in Las Vegas. And yes, she still bakes for herself, too.
“I like light cakes. Vanilla with berries,” she said. “Of course, if I want to treat myself, I love a slice of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. There are times when you just need high-quality, 64-percent real chocolate.”
As for home chefs, she said that you should “bake from the heart.”
“You have to be free and easy in the kitchen. Enjoy what you’re doing. Don’t worry about messing up,” she said. “Do your own thing.”